News / Middle East

Heavy Fighting Kills 34 in Syria, UN Monitors Blocked

Smoke rises from buildings hit by shelling in Homs, SyriaSmoke rises from buildings hit by shelling in Homs, Syria
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Smoke rises from buildings hit by shelling in Homs, Syria
Smoke rises from buildings hit by shelling in Homs, Syria
Mark SnowissEdward Yeranian
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Tuesday the U.S. is concerned about reports Russia is sending attack helicopters to Syria.

She also said Russia's claims that its arms shipments to Syria are unrelated to the conflict are "patently untrue." She said the U.S. has confronted Russia about stopping its continued arms transfers to the country.

Her comments come as Syrian rights groups say at least 34 people were killed Tuesday as government forces continued attacks on rebel strongholds, and U.N. monitors reported an angry mob prevented them from reaching the embattled western town of al-Haffeh.

The Local Coordination Committees, an activist group with members throughout Syria, said the casualties include 14 civilians dead in Deir al-Zour, 10 in Homs and eight in Aleppo. A number of government soldiers were among those killed.

Video footage from Syria

Also Tuesday, news agencies quoted United Nations peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous as saying he believes Syria is now in a full-scale civil war, with a "massive increase in the level of violence."

But U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky backed away from that characterization, telling reporters later "it is not for the U.N. to designate in that way." Nesirky, however, did confirm "a qualitative shift and intensification" of the violence in Syria.

Escalation in Al-Haffeh

The U.N. mission in Syria said a crowd of what appeared to be local residents in al-Haffeh surrounded U.N. observers and threw rocks and metal bars at their vehicles, firing gunshots at them as they left the area. None of the observers was injured.

The United States has indicated it fears Syrian forces are planning to massacre civilians in the town.

LCC spokeswoman Rafif Jouejati said rebel fighters in al-Haffeh have been attempting to smuggle trapped civilians over the nearby Turkish border.

"We know there were some 30,000 residents trapped in the town of al-Haffeh and we also know members of the Free Syrian Army were trying to help residents flee the area and get transported to Turkey and that a small number of residents have been safely transported, but there are still thousands of residents trapped," she said.

Clashes began last week when security forces initiated their attempt to capture the strategic Sunni Muslim town, located close to the port city of Latakia and the Turkish border - and used by rebels as an active smuggling route for people and supplies.

Hundreds of rebels are facing a continued tank and helicopter-backed assault in al-Haffeh. The helicopter attacks - confirmed by the U.N. on Monday - are regarded as a significant escalation by government forces.

Jouejati said that helicopter shelling and other aerial attacks  by government forces have been occurring for months across Syria.

Contact group

A spokesman for international envoy Kofi Annan, Ahmad Fawzi, said Tuesday that an international "contact group" will meet soon to discuss how to pressure Syria's government and opposition groups to implement the U.N.-Arab League envoy's tattered peace plan.

"What is lacking is implementation and that is why we count on these member states with influence on the parties during this meeting and as a result of this meeting to put irrevocable pressure on the parties to implement the plan and stop the killing and begin a political transition," he said.  

No venue, date or list of participants for the meeting has been set.  

Despite Secretary Clinton's outspoken comments on Russia Tuesday, Jeff Mankoff, an adjunct fellow for CSIS's Russia and Eurasia Program, said the U.S. still considers Russia as "the key" to any negotiated settlement in Syria.

"Russia is the only outside power that really has the leverage to the Assad government to lean on them and precipitate some kind of negotiated transfer of power--something along the lines of what you had in Yemen," Mankoff said.

The contact group meeting has been in doubt because of Western opposition to Syrian ally Iran's involvement. The Iranian foreign ministry Tuesday welcomed a Russian proposal for Iran to be included despite strong reservations from the United States, France and Britain.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he continues to hope for a peaceful solution.

"I don't think we can rule out options but the only option we are advocating and trying to bring about at this moment is the implementation of the Annan plan and a peaceful transition in Syria," he said.

But former U.N. official Mark Malloch-Brown, who worked closely with Mr. Annan at the U.N., echoed sentiments that Syria is on the verge of, if not already in, a state of civil war.

“The difference between civil war or near civil war is at times like this so slight, that the distinction almost loses meaning," he said. "But the fact is, hits by the [pro-government] Alawite militias on innocent civilians in Sunni villages, have now prompted tit-for-tat hits against Alawite civilians in other parts of the country. So you have got the whole escalating process of sectarian on sectarian violence which is really the essence of a civil war.”

Child victims

On Monday, the United Nations accused Syrian security forces and pro-government "shabiha" militias of committing serious rights violations against children, including using them as human shields.

The report also said children have been "victims of killing and maiming, arbitrary arrest, detention, torture and ill-treatment, including sexual violence."

The U.S.-based group Human Rights Watch said the U.N. Security Council should impose an arms embargo and other targeted sanctions on the Syrian leadership in response to the abuses described in the report. It said Syrian children are paying a "horrendous price" in the conflict.

Analyst Hilal Khashan at the American University of Beirut said it appears the Syrian government is losing control of large parts of the country.

"The insurgency has spread throughout the country and the regime is now frantic," he said. "They are doing all they can do in order to redress the situation and the only way they know how to react is brutally and they don't mind bringing the country to civil war."

Syrian state TV said on Tuesday that government forces near the port city of Latakia were "chasing bands of terrorists" who were "destroying government buildings and terrorizing local residents." The report also said that "armed terrorists" stopped two buses carrying civilians near the Lebanese border.

VOA's Carla Babb and Andre De Nesnera contributed to this report from Washington and Lisa Schlein from Geneva.

Mark Snowiss

Mark Snowiss is a Washington D.C.-based multimedia reporter.  He has written and edited for various media outlets including Pacifica and NPR affiliates in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @msnowiss and on Google Plus

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by: Anonymous
June 14, 2012 6:34 AM
So I hear now Russia wants to later park their Aircraft Carrier and other ships in the harbour after the war... Why would he do that if the Syrian people don't want them there? I gave a scenerio to demonstrate Russias inaction in the matter, and now has a slight twist. This is no different than Mr Putin Sipping his tea in a room next to a woman being raped out loud, gingerly taking sips of his tea. Once the Rapist leaves, he crawls in to the bed beside her expecting to just lay there comforting. Doesn't work that way dude! I can't believe his mentality, it is demented. Nobody would ever want the Russians back in their country again after the Russian Government creating this mess which could of been averted earlier. I bet you any money Assad is already in Russia, and likely left onboard one of the Russian Ships. I'd put money on it.
The war will go on even without Assad there. I hope this ends up costing the Russian Gov several million dollars in the end, and they end up with protests all over their country for both Syria and their own democracy.

by: John from: Lagos
June 13, 2012 4:59 AM
Fact number one is that, Russia and possibly China are sending weapons to the Syrian government: Fact number two, the US, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar are also arming the free Syrian army to the teeth. Get these clear Madam secretary of State Hilary Clinton. No sensible government will allow that.

by: Anonymous
June 13, 2012 3:32 AM
Because of Russian non compliance to human rights and the killing going on in Syria, every country should boycott them, and Nato should go into Syria and disable the Syrian Army. It appears the world is afraid of Russia. Because the world is showing fright, Russia will use that to their advantage to go in themselves, or supply weaponry. I suggest the USA and other powers stand up to them over Syria and call their bluff. The last thing Putin wants is a war with the world over Syria. He's bluffing, trying to act tough to fend off a harbour for his navy, as well as sell more arms to Syrian government. Putin needs his hand smacked by the world. Putin doesn't realise that these types of behaviours get tallied for the future. Nato / Western forces should go in there now before Putin does. Putin is a criminal too, look what he did to the people of Chechnya.

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